Budget & Tax

Lawmakers exempt themselves from budget sacrifice

May 20, 2020

Ray Carter

As lawmakers faced a $1.3 billion shortfall this year, a wide range of cuts were discussed, along with various fee and tax increases. But one thing was never aggressively pursued as a cost-saving measure, at least publicly: forgoing a 35 percent increase in legislative pay set to take effect in November.

In 2019, the Legislative Compensation Board voted to boost legislators’ annual pay from $35,021 to $47,500, effective November 2020. The total cost of the pay raise is more than $1.8 million for all 149 lawmakers—$1.2 million in the House and just under $600,000 in the Senate.

News of the enormous pay raises has drawn much criticism, especially since the raises are being funded in a year when the state faced a $1.3 billion shortfall and lawmakers passed a budget the governor says makes another $1 billion shortfall likely next year.

“When the Oklahoma Legislature opens committee hearings to testimony from the public, putting in the time it truly takes to hear from multiple points of view, only then should anybody talk about giving them a pay raise,” said Byron Schlomach, director of the 1889 Institute, a think tank.

“I think every legislator should donate back the difference of the increase, just to show that they are a servant-minded leader and to protest the fact that some think Oklahoma taxpayers should have to pay so much more for their legislators than do other states,” said former state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. “And so I think every legislator should donate back that raise, and they can do it any number of ways. They can donate it to local charities that are organized and official, like what I did, or they can donate it back to the state through their income-tax donation box. Either way, it’s really important that they donate that money back.”

As a legislator, Murphey practiced what he now preaches. Murphey served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 12 years, from 2007 to 2019. When he was first elected, Murphey vowed not to accept legislative pay that exceeded the typical Oklahoman’s pay. That excess amount averaged $7,000 to $8,000 per year, and Murphey donated that amount annually to a local health clinic each year of his service—a combined total of $84,000 to $96,000 over the course of his legislative service.

The $47,500 legislative salary Oklahoma lawmakers will receive starting in November exceeds the legislative salaries in numerous states, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

NCSL shows that Oklahoma legislators’ annual salaries will exceed the 2019 salaries listed for their counterparts in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Oklahoma’s legislative salaries may also exceed the pay in several other states where lawmakers are paid for each day or week they are in session. And, while Hawaii lawmakers technically make more money, the purchasing power of Oklahoma lawmakers’ salaries will be greater after accounting for cost-of-living differences.

The Oklahoma lawmaker pay raise also comes in a year when state politicians barely spent any time at the Capitol.

Lawmakers convened in session for most normal working days in February, but met only two weeks in March, a handful of days in April, and two weeks in May. While lawmakers may come back for an additional day or two of light work before the end of the month, they are not expected to do much.

As a result, the 2020 legislative session may involve the fewest legislative working days in decades if not state history. The perception that lawmakers are getting paid far more while doing far less has only added to public dismay.

Lawmakers insist they have no choice in receiving such huge pay raises.

“Asking ‘why they chose to accept’ is a falsely premised question that ignores the 50-year-old constitutional prohibition on legislators acting on their pay, and as I said three years ago when pay was cut, legislators do this for the service, not the pay,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.

House Majority Leader John Echols, R-Oklahoma City, issued a similar statement to KFOR, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. Echols told KFOR that legislators “have zero authority to set their own pay.”

“The Constitution places legislative pay entirely with an independent board of citizens, so it is false to say legislators gave themselves raises in the budget,” Echols said. “The entire legislative branch of government is receiving budget cuts this year like most agencies, so no new money is being appropriated for the salary adjustments the independent board approved last year. This constitutionally required cost, which was out of legislators’ control, will be paid out of existing funds.”

The Legislative Compensation Board was created in the 1960s via a constitutional amendment. Officials in McCall’s office said lawmakers cannot accept or reject actions of the board, and noted the board recommended legislative pay cuts two years ago.

But the relationship between lawmakers and members of the compensation board is not necessarily distant.

The Legislative Compensation Board has nine voting members, and four of the nine are direct appointees of legislative leadership. The other five members are appointed by the governor.

State campaign-contribution records show the legislative-appointed members of the compensation board have all contributed to legislative campaigns or to political action committees that supported legislators.

And, while this year’s appropriation was reduced slightly for the three main legislative entities—a 4 percent cut for the House, the Senate, and the Legislative Service Bureau (an agency serving both branches of the Legislature)—that reduction came after several years of lavish funding increases that are now facilitating the huge pay raise despite massive budget shortfall.

For the current 2020 budget year, which runs through June 30, a Senate budget document shows the Oklahoma House of Representatives increased its appropriation by $7.3 million compared to 2019, an increase of nearly 59 percent. The 4 percent budget cut implemented for the 2021 budget year reduces the House appropriation to $19 million, which is still 52 percent more than what the House had in 2019.

The Senate’s FY20 appropriation was $11.4 million. The chamber’s latest appropriation is just over $11 million, but that figure is still nearly 25 percent greater than the Senate’s appropriation as recently as the 2018 budget year.

The Legislative Service Bureau (LSB) received $17.4 million in FY20 and received $16.7 million for FY21. But the Legislative Service Bureau received an appropriation of as little as $4.5 million in the 2016 state budget year, meaning the “cut” budget for LSB in 2021 remains 271 percent above relatively recent funding levels.

The increased funding for the legislative branch was justified, in part, to raise staff salaries in both chambers. But records indicate those salary increases account for only a small fraction of the appropriation increase, and the total cost of those staff salary increases is roughly half the amount that will be going to lawmakers for their pay increases.

In 2020, House staff received a pay raise that totaled $461,855 for all employees, according to the Senate budget document. The rest of the increased funding was described only as covering vague and undefined “increased operational costs.”

The pay raise for LSB employees in 2020 only consumed $6,270. Another $1.7 million was appropriated to fund a newly authorized Legislative Office of Accountability. That office remains more an abstract idea than reality, and the entity’s first employee—a director—was not hired until earlier this month.

The 2020 employee pay raise consumed just $257,578 of the Senate’s increased funding.

Even after this year’s 4 percent reduction in appropriations, the House, Senate, and LSB’s combined appropriations remain $21.6 million greater than the combined appropriation for each of the three entities when running at their leanest in recent years.

Defenders of raising legislators’ pay to $47,500 say better pay is needed to attract better candidates for public office.

Murphey rejects that argument.

“I always bristle a little bit when they put out quotes like ‘we get what we pay for,’ or that people wouldn’t step up and serve if the legislative salary wasn’t so high and out of whack with the national average for part-time legislators,” Murphey said. “I don’t believe that to be the case.”

He noted a record number of people filed for public office in 2018, when legislative pay was set to be cut. In contrast, the 2020 filing period, conducted with the promise of higher pay, saw far fewer candidates and many legislators were re-elected without a race.

“That directly refutes some suggestion that it’s the money that’s going to motivate the person to file,” Murphey said. “It’s clear now that that is not a correlation. The call to serve is just that: It’s a calling. It’s not an opportunity to make money.”

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)